May 30, 2010
After reading "The End of Fashion" last week, I serendipitously stumbled upon "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost it's Luster," at the Salvation Army (hello, irony) on Friday and jumped right in.
Written by Dana Thomas and published in 2007, "Deluxe" tells a similar story to that of Teri Agins' 1999 "The End of Fashion," though it brings us forward nearly ten years and has a narrower focus. It's a depressing tale.
The subject is marketing and fashion brands and how global corporations like LVMH and others have bought up small, tradition-bound, family-operated luxury companies and simultaneously exploited their reputation for fine craftsmanship, mass marketed their pedigrees, and squeezed them for profits, all the while compromising the quality that made them famous in the first place.
I would not be a consumer of brands like Louis Vuitton or Chanel regardless of who owned them; still, I feel about these historic luxury companies the way I feel about the endangered glaciers in Glacier National Park: I may not benefit directly but it's nice to know they're there. To discover that a so-called luxury item selling for thousands of dollars is produced at one-tenth the cost by young Chinese women living on a factory campus is literally disillusioning.
I recognize even in myself a certain snobbishness regarding the provenance of an item (Italy, good; China, bad) as if Chinese workers had less right to jobs, comfort, and all the good things we all desire. We're all human beings. No one with a conscience, however, wants to purchase something made by people who are exploited or whose production is environmentally destructive. But knowingly or not, most of us do. We drive cars, we turn on lights, we eat bananas, we drink soda out of aluminum cans.
What's goes on in the world of luxury brands is just a window into how corporations affect us all, some more destructively than others.
Corporations by design must grow and they're expected to increase profits from quarter to quarter. They manufacture things (usually) but their primary purpose is to enrich their shareholders. We see the results in the loss of our local stores when Walmart moves in, the tragedy that's currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico due to cut-rate, largely unregulated drilling by British Petroleum, corporate farming, corporate food production, corporate restaurant chains, corporate weapons manufacturing and "security," the list goes on and on.
Who owns Singer today and why does a Janome sewing machine look just like a Brother?
If your pension fund or 401K is invested in a profitable corporation (and it probably is/was), or you work for one, however, you might be more ambivalent. It depends on your perspective.
I strongly recommend reading "Deluxe" even if it is a bit depressing; it's a fascinating story and it's eye-opening to discover what's driving those ubiquitous ads for luxury labels. Frankly, it was startling leafing through some vintage Eighties copies of Vogue I own a few weeks ago, to see how low-key and soft-sell the advertising was back then; no global brands. There were a LOT of cigarette ads, however.
So readers, should we lament the loss of the true, family-owned luxury brand that formerly catered only to a small circle of the very rich? Is it really our loss, or theirs?
Should we resist purchasing anything produced by a corporation, regardless of where it's made, and limit ourselves -- where we can -- to sites like Etsy?